Features

Roadblocks amid rubble

International | Fearing evangelism, Hindu radicals try to thwart Christian earthquake relief efforts in India

Issue: "Attack and dissent," May 19, 2001

in Bhuj, India-Daytime temperatures in Bhuj now reach 112 degrees. The medieval desert town at the epicenter of India's Jan. 26 earthquake, which killed over 30,000 people in northwest India, lies entirely in ruins. Every home is either destroyed or uninhabitable in what was once a city of 150,000. "Everything collapsed like breadcrumbs," said a survivor who is now camped in the rubble of his bygone home. Others live in makeshift shelters and "rag-cities" in what has become an open-air town. Stone and brick homes that once provided cooling shelter in middle-class neighborhoods now are heaped into rubble that only intensifies the radiant heat. A few industry jobs are back on line, but thousands of textile workers, artisans, and salt miners remain unemployed as well as homeless. Initially, mass chaos and lack of infrastructure hampered relief efforts. Now, Hindu religious fanatics and government malfeasance threaten to stall the work of Christian and other relief groups. In the first few days following the quake, the government gave each family a one-time grant of 1,750 rupees ($38). "That is the only assistance the government has given," a survivor told WORLD. "Since then we have seen no other action by our government." As delays persist in the three months since the quake, stories are circulating that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been skimming sizeable portions of donated relief goods and cash. Throughout India this year there has been a public outcry against government corruption. Last month national networks aired videotape footage taken by a hidden camera showing members of Parliament, the head of the BJP, and officials in the Defense Department receiving bags of cash in an arms deal worth millions of dollars. Political rivals are trying to outmaneuver one another in the public eye by arguing the need for ethics reform. But the public is convinced that corruption is systemic and has infiltrated even to the earthquake relief efforts. Rival political parties openly accuse BJP officials of stealing relief funds. The net effect is a swelling public anger that threatens to sweep the militant BJP government out of power. Last week quake survivors said they would send 2,001 letters-written in blood-to Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee to protest the relief shortage and abuses. Hindu businessman Gulab Carlu said his business associates in the Gulf states sent two shiploads of relief goods to Bhuj right after the quake. They never arrived. "No one can account for where they are," he said. "No one in Bhuj has seen a single shipment of supplies reach the region." He believes the boatloads of goods were intercepted and sold. Save the Children emergency program manager Chris Cattaway also believes earthquake relief has been diverted. He told WORLD, "The Indian people responded generously to their government's call for donations," but commensurate funds have not showed up in the hardest hit areas. Where are they? "When you find out, tell me," said Mr. Cattaway. Compounding the problem of embezzled relief money, militant Hindu factions of the state government in Gugarat, where the quake took place, erected barriers to Christian aid groups during the first weeks after the earthquake. One newspaper headline read, "Do not allow the Christians to help you. They want to fill your stomachs with food so they can fill your mind with lies." Girish Christian, director of World Vision India, told WORLD, "In the beginning, Hindu fanatics were keeping Christian agencies out. Even indigenous Hindi-speaking people like us were opposed." Local newspapers accused World Vision of "trying to convert people." Mr. Christian said the organization has had to make extra efforts to show that they are in Bhuj first to deliver aid and help victims. David Prince, director of India relief for the British group Tearfund, said, "The Hindu radicals tell people to not accept help from Christians. They are afraid the Christians will 'buy them into Christianity.' The radicals fear any liberation of the people. Their fear-hold on the poor is the basis of political power. They doubly fear evangelical emancipation." Mr. Prince said attacks on Christians are sporadic, yet very real and potentially life threatening. Gujarat has a history of violence against Christians. Those were isolated incidents until the BJP came to power nationwide in March, 1998. Monitoring groups report increased attacks on Christians-33 incidents since 1998-including the killing of a Roman Catholic priest, the beheading of a Protestant pastor, and destruction of Christian schools, churches, and cemeteries. Government leaders deny that they support attacks on Christians and claim the incidents are the work of fringe Hindu organizations and animist tribal groups. But with the election of the BJP, these groups seem to be operating with impunity. "The threat of persecution and harm may be isolated, but it is still a very real danger," said Mr. Christian. Christian relief agencies working in Bhuj have learned to proceed with caution, publicly describing their earthquake relief activities as "social relief work" and avoiding the term ministry. Many organizations have also discovered that it is easier to work in rural villages. These villages are not receiving other assistance, and they allow a low profile. Rob Perret, country director for North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse, reported "pressure being put on Christian groups to leave." In one village, a Samaritan's Purse worker tried to photograph a boy holding a Bible. A crowd of Hindu radicals began shouting religious epithets. "Our team members were slapped and punched," reported Mr. Perret. "We had to throw everything into the van and speed off before the doors were closed." Samaritan's Purse has now found safe harbor in another village where locals have offered to provide staffing for meal preparation and protection against the Hindu militants. Ultimately, the earthquake could mean disaster for the ruling BJP. People who have lost everything have nothing to lose anymore. And in the face of government corruption and inaction, Christian aid is gaining friends. Jayaram, a 30-year-old widow with five children all living in one of the "rag-cities" in Bhuj, told WORLD, "The only ones really helping and caring for us are the Christians." The residents of the neighboring village of Anjar were so restive about government delays-including hindrances to Christian relief groups and corruption-that 5,000 of them marched in protest to the state capital of Ahmadabad. In answer, the government offered a kar seva ceremony to "appease the gods." Even as it claims to be cash-strapped to manage the quake relief, the government spent an estimated $350,000 for a national ad blitz promoting the kar seva. Primarily an "offering to the gods" and "cleansing of the soul," the ceremony was also used to call volunteers from around the nation to join in reconstruction work. Locals saw through the public relations move, and realized the kar seva was a massive image-building campaign for the BJP. It is likely to backfire, and there may be enough backlash now to turn the BJP out of office during the next election cycle. When the earthquake struck, many Christians in India and around the world speculated it was God's judgment on a region that had brutally opposed the Christian gospel. It made sense that a region worshipping stone idols would perish under the crush of falling stones. After the quake, Internet legends circulated of Christians amazingly spared death and injury. "That was not really the case," said Mr. Perret of Samaritan's Purse. Despite a few incidents of miraculous protection, as when a team from Operation Mobilization narrowly missed being crushed in the collapse of a hotel, "for the most part Christians were not spared," said Mr. Perret. "Their homes were destroyed. Their lives were lost." The earthquake may produce an outcome less spectacular but no less miraculous: that the general population, in spite of resistance from dominant Hindu militants, is now welcoming help from Christian aid groups.

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